Story by Matt Wickstrom
Photos by Sarah Cahill
LEXINGTON, Ky. — Reunited rock troupe the Raconteurs capped off a heated first day of Railbird Fest with a catalogue spanning set in front of an ocean of sun-drenched patrons. Led by musical mastermind Jack White, the group dipped heavy into their fresh, chart-topping Help Us Stranger including distortion heavy renditions of “Bored and Razed,” “Help Me Stranger,” and “Somedays (I Don’t Feel Like Trying)” while also serving up fresh takes on old hits including “Level” and fan favorite “Steady, As She Goes” from its 2006 debut Broken Boy Soldiers. Also mixed in were cuts from the band’s follow-up 2008 effort Consolers of the Lonely with “Old Enough,” “Top Yourself” and “You Don’t Understand Me” – the last of which saw White switch out his guitar (for which he had one for nearly each song) to get behind the keyboard.
Prior to the Raconteurs lighting up the night sky much of the buzz around the grounds of Keeneland surrounded Americana badass Brandi Carlile, who minutes after completing her own blistering 75 minute set hitched a ride across the grounds to join bluegrass showmen Old Crow Medicine Show for an emphatic three-song conclusion that brought the Railbird crowd to a fever pitch. Following a glamorous introduction from fiddler Ketch Secor, Carlile joined the group for staple “Wagon Wheel” before fully handing her the reigns on a conjuring of Dolly Parton classic “Jolene” and Johnny Cash’s “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” Prior to Carlile’s guest appearance, Old Crow’s high strung set included “Dixie Avenue,” “Sweet Amarillo,” “Methamphetamine” and ‘stoner gospel’ “I Hope I’m Stoned (When Jesus Takes Me Home).”
Prior to the mad dash, Carlile ran through a plethora of her hits – and a few surprise covers – in her main stage set including “The Story,” “The Joke,” “Raise Hell,” “Fulton County Jane Doe” and “Dreams.” Accompanying them was a moving cover of Joni Mitchell’s “A Case of You” and Led Zeppelin’s “Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You” transformed into a folk rock medley.
Earlier in the afternoon Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee Mavis Staples showed she’s still got it after turning 80 last month during a genre-bending set of funk, soul and rock. Staples’ performance spanned the entirety of her half century-long music career, from the Staple Singers’ 1973 hit “If You’re Ready (Come Go With Me)” to “Anytime” from her 2019 effort We Get By. However, the cherry atop Staples’ shining performance was a gritty take on the Talking Heads’ “Slippery People.”
Among Saturday’s other standouts…
Beattyville native Ian Noe brought his poetically vibrant songwriting and Woody Guthrie-esque vocal chops to one of the early afternoon’s most highly anticipated performances. The artist, touring in support of his debut album Between the Country, swept through cuts of “Irene (Ravin’ Bomb),” “Dead on the River (Rolling Down)” and “Barbara’s Song,” among others.
Low Cut Connie delivered wild and acrobatic antics during a sweaty set under the sun. Front man Adam Weiner’s outgoing charisma and charm was in full effect as the band tackled a set opening “All These Kids Are Way Too High” before continuing on through “Death and Destruction,” “Dirty Water” and a cover of Prince hit “Controversy.”
Lillie Mae dazzled on the Burl Stage with a mix of country and folk inspired stylings that saw the artist hop from guitar to fiddle as she traded licks with her tightly connected band that included brother Frank Rische (guitar) and Scarlett Rische (mandolin). The performance’s highlights included the artist’s sassy and matter-of-fact “You’ve Got Other Girls For That” from her upcoming album Other Girls out Aug. 16 and a set-closing, foot stomping instrumental “El Cumbanchero.”
Billy Strings brought by far the biggest crowd to Railbird’s Burl Stage with a fiery psychedelic twang infused set of bluegrass stylings new and old. The artist’s set ran through a variety of hits from “While I’m Waiting Here” and “Turmoil & Tinfoil” to an old-timey cover of The Stanley Brothers’ “Going to the Races.”
Railbird Festival continues Sunday with performances from Tyler Childers, Hozier, Jade Bird, Yola and others. For more information visit RailbirdFest.com. Follow @wickstromwrites on Instagram to follow along with Sunday’s action live and stay tuned for further coverage here on the blog.
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